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Text / Iyawó (Kristin Naca) 

A poet takes ekphrastic account of artworks that punctuate her initiation into the religion of Santería.

    Leah DeVun, King Dead, King Replaced, 2014, C-print [courtesy of the artist]

February 2014—the Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition of Latino art, Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, opens in Washington, DC. It travels to cities including Miami; Sacramento, CA; and Salt Lake City, UT. In fall 2015, editor Don Share, collaborating with Francisco Aragón, director of Letras Latinas, the literary initiative of the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies, will publish a portfolio of ekphrastic poetry detailing the exhibition in Poetry magazine. 

The genre of ekphrastic poetry, or a poetic account of a work of art, has flourished in the West since the Greeks. Lyric poet Simonides (556-468 BCE) wrote, "Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is a speaking painting." Roman poet Horace (65-8 BCE) surmised, "Ut pictura poesis," which may be loosely translated to "There is a poetry like a painting." Seventh-century French painter and poet Charles-Alphonse Du Fresnoy reimagined "[p]ainting and poetry" as "two sisters who are so much alike in all things, that they lend themselves alternately to each other's offices and names. We call the first silent poetry, and the other a talking painting."1

A Rest by Flight

Wind rips your house clear into the sky and you with it

fingers tethered sotta voce to a kite string; your hips 

the crown of an anchor absolving the pupil's chair. 

The weathervane on a nave, angel heralding, the way

to turn when you hear wind beat the world into place, 

the color cock's comb from every pore. Your mother, 

barefoot in a red one-piece, pussyfoots around her home.

As tree roots flesh out underneath their shape repeats 

in branches annexing the sky, not a leaf to bind them. 

Your father raises his arms like he's just set down arms. 

The stripes of his swim trunks detract from his toothsome 

figure. Executioner's mask keeps the blame off his face. 

Seems Saturn tore your mother's head off, too. Remember 

the day he saw what he had done and screwed her head on — 

so she walks into the unknown — facing backwards?

—after Arturo Rodríguez, Sin Título, from the series The Tempest, 1998, oil on canvas.

In the 18th century, ekphrastic poetry expanded to include both fictional artworks and poetry relating the life of a painting, say, through connections drawn from the poet's own life. Ekphrastic poetry took on added significance and purpose in the Victorian era as a form of travel writing, vivifying works for audiences who had no means to see such pieces in person.2 

My own process as a poet is a mostly solitary endeavor. Subject matter isn't negotiated. I wrote ekphrastic poems for Bird Eating Bird (2009), my first collection, but questioned making it overt: wasn't ekphrasticism always assumed? Doesn't the postmodern condition drive painters, poets, and sculptors to seek companionship in each other's work, or even to prefer it to the company of humans?

Key Changes, Accidentals

A chair on a beach. A straw seat. Surf curls at its feet.

Salt water tries to decide, bury her or wash her out to sea.

Footprints remind us you were somewhere, once.

Distance a chair, like a plumb line finds crosshairs

against the curvature of earth, faces us.

If you sit there do not look back in time and wonder

that you are not you in the future. The future does not

render a self to sit in a chair or find in a mirror.

Mist grows foreigner as a surface on the water.

—after iliana emilia garcia, Unknown Distances/Undiscovered Islands, from the series of the same name, 2006-2007, inkjet prints on canvas.

That I would write about Latino art churned me. I don't shy from categories. They allow my work to reach people who want to read it. Culture finagles names on its own. I have to keep nostalgia in check, because it flattens surfaces to me. A surfeit of subject matter awaits in the absences signifiers strain with difference—"half of it always 'not there' and the other half always 'not that.'"3 I realize I don't have qualms with the exhibition, just certain fictions perpetuated by the book, though you can't argue against the necessity of the taxonomy. 

I text Francisco a surprise photo of my partner, Elena, standing outside Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. I explain I'm staying for three days to write before continuing on to Mexico City then Havana, where I am to make Ocha in the religion La Regla Ocha, also known as Santería. Kariocha, or making Ocha, is a weeklong ceremony in which Santo priests and priestesses seat my tutelary Oricha on my head. My life, "la vida profana," dies and a "nacimiento y renacimiento," my birth and rebirth on a religious path, replaces it. I will learn and take on sacerdotal responsibilities once completing my iyaworaje, a year in which I'm known only as Iyawó, or bride (of the Oricha).4 

Mexico City harbors my friends who started La Colmena, a collective of emerging artists in the Portales neighborhood. I promise to introduce my godsister, the photographer Leah DeVun, to the inventive and industrious art souls there. Leah and I travel together with our Madrina to meet our extended family, or ilé, in Cuba, where I am to begin a new life, learning to honor the crown of my mother Oricha. I take notes on the journey that readily slide into micropoems—short pieces that put forth a rhythm, image, mirror, placed in experiments of syntactic order. Eventually they grow into full poems. Some pieces wind up in the hands of Don and Francisco.


I was a child. I drew a horizon line and a vanishing point.

I used a ruler to draw boxes close to me. I drew so many carbon

roughed in me. It was night. I used an eraser to push the stubborn air.

I made smears and mirrors. Graphite was everything and everything 

was everywhere. Rest your hands, little dove, come closer. 

A tree reveals itself to me only by erasure. A park bench. Surf.

A blender in the kitchen whirred. When I looked for a source — 

street lamp, the moon, no star in space as far as I could see. Was it

me remembering your face. Or you light casting off my feathers?

—after Teresita Fernández, Nocturnal (Horizon Line), 2010, solid graphite on panel.

I gravitate to an archive photograph of earth-body sculptor and performance artist Ana Mendieta's Silueta series (1973-1980), and Breakfast Tacos (2003), from the seriesSeven Days by Chuck Ramirez, a beloved photographer from San Antonio. Acquainting myself with Mendieta's work revivifies the passage from indigenous to international inscribed in the appellation "Latino." The feminine body is her point of rupture and return. The Silueta works, and a significant number of her works not exhibited in Our America, speak of an indigenous Mendieta had to bury within herself, upon being uprooted from her home in Havana at the age of 12, weathering refugee camps and institutions, and landing in exile in Iowa. Stored between her ribs, that history sprang from each earth-body form she disinterred in the various sites of her subsequent artistic intervention. 

In Mexico City, I hole up for two days before Leah joins me, at the home of Fabio and his family, in Roma Norte. Behind the impenetrable iron garage doors, live sitar music bends the air and escapes through a square of sky shaped by a welcoming courtyard. I come to this city to take long paseos and let the French, Spanish, and Aztec architecture—the music of the Nahuatl (even some Tagalog)—rearrange history in me and reformulate my vision. Instead of business as usual, some invisible force turns me around on city streets I've walked a hundred times and memorized by name. Because I am lost I wander my way to a tiny girl-punk tattoo parlor in the shadow of the Cuauhtémoc metro station, where one chava uses pliers to remove a piercing I cannot wear during my iyaworaje.

Winch & Scutula

I met Ken and couldn't place him.

Photographers have no faces. 

He combed the woods for limbs two horses high.

It's common to interchange swing for a hanging. 

If a ghost could transmogrify beneath a prehistoric oak.

How quickly could ghosts bloody up their master?

Instead a doorknob activates a spindle.

Instead lawn chairs laze over. 

The verb obituate might make the world right for a specter. 

You study postcards; too many faces in festooned hats. 

You cannot blame this act on a feather. 

A limb dead-ends at a chill by growing inward.

Cool tissue is what ants, earthworms and moles manufacture.

A truth mossed over.

For roots to push through the soil they "go aerial."

To hang a man you gotta sneak up on him. 

If he cuts his head off, you gonna hang him by his feet?

—after Ken Gonzalez-Day, At daylight the miserable man was carried to an oak ..., 2007, from the series Searching for California hang trees, inkjet prints; and Ken Gonzalez-Day, Erased Lynchings, 2006, series of 15 inkjet prints.

The list of restrictions I must maintain during the iyaworaje is vast. Eventually, I will learn to entertain the restrictions as a list of do's. As in, "do" live a life of purity and stay clean in every way possible: dress yourself only in clothes of the purest white; wash your clothes and sheets every day; eat from a single consecrated plate, cup, and spoon; use respectful language; allow only your closest family members and the people who have made Santo to make physical contact with you—which in Minnesota means no one you know. Come home before nighttime and leave home after noon; cover your head always and use an umbrella so the sun doesn't harm the ashé of the Oricha seated on your head; let all your hair grow and piercings close. At the tattoo parlor one of the chavas consoles me. Even after five years, she says, her empty piercing hasn't closed. 

I stop by Mariana Roa Olivas' for breakfast because her mother wants to meet the poeta vaga who once taught her daughter. I saunter through a city that's too dangerous for many foreigners, including Mexican Americans; even Mexicans take precautions. My secret, I tell her, is an inscrutable, mestizo ethnicity. It garners stares yet deters predators. Whatever I am, a kidnapper can only wonder; they've never seen one before.

Leah arrives in town, and Mariana provides a tour of La Colmena. The common colonial-style building—two stories high, decorated with a mural of beehives, honey dripping down the walls—takes up a chunk of a street corner. Windows round into arch shapes, and flowerboxes (is one an altar?) brighten faux balconies. Spanish tile and dramatic vaulted ceilings lead down narrow hallways to the kitchen, or to the rooms where residents and visiting artists offer free community workshops. They're throwing a pozolenight, and the caldo has been on the stove for hours. They invite the landlord to discuss the progress on the rooftop gardens.


Off white roosters 

against white flowers

in pink floor tiles. 

White waxed rope 

gathers the spurs. 

Spots on a wing 

keeps two birds 

from merging. Black

winds deep the hole

each eye socket

empties. Already iku's

at work. Who sorts

a rooster from 

its comb, nose 

holes from beak, yellow 

to be cooked

off feet unbound 

from bones. Who counts

each breath as 

beads stack one 

end of an abacus.

—after Leah DeVun, King Dead, King Replaced, 2014, from the series No One Knows What's at the Bottom of the Ocean, C-print.

A staircase leads up to a demure colonnade on the second floor, where mattresses collide on bedroom floors. A future list of La Colmena alumni will read like a mixed-media exhibition: Pat Lebeau, poet; Sara Raca, poet and textile artist; Alejandra de la Granja, poet-activist; Hans Giebe, poet; Amaury Gaminio and Laura Murcia, composers, singers, guitarists; Kalia Chan, writer; Chloe Chon, writer and affiliate of Maskmagazine; Rebeca Roa, actress, activist, and singer in Los Peligrosos del Ritmo; Karen Chacón, visual artist. Others volunteer to teach there: artists Natalia Rabell and Laura Victoria Martes; photographer Juan Manuel Outon; writer Francisco Torres; muralist Fabi García; filmmaker collective negro semilla. 

At night I am haunted by images in which I make my escape. Maybe it's because every window on every boarding house we sleep in, from Mexico City to Havana, is elaborated with ornate, wrought iron security bars. I've never been a bride of anything. Every cell in my body whispers, flee.


A tile mosaic honors two,

young stars in flames that glow

to earth on ancient rays.

Outside a room where brides

of Oricha assume the throne

plantains mildew on a branch. 

Green drains from skin; gold

ages sable. Air sweetens from 

fumes of sweltering marrow. 

The banana's upturned crook 

like a fishhook piercing out

an earthworm's innards. 

Do turns in the floor tile 

remind us how ships used to 

feel their way through monsoons?

Or Santeras seated on tiny

stools turn a sacrifice of

lamb back to meat? Reggís 

leaves the grease of his palm 

on the wood handle of a mop 

as trade for a callus he receives. 

A mop head snuffs the floor. 

A bucket signals purification,

a drying-out, or door opening.

—after Leah DeVun, Beneath All Land and Water the Fire Still Burns, 2014, from the series No One Knows What's at the Bottom of the Ocean, C-print.

Madrina tells me anywhere I go a santera must accompany me. Late night in Havana, with her and Leah sick in bed, I go out to pick up a sandwich. A block down the street, Yudesi, a santera who runs a botánica (a religious supply store), spots me. She leads me back to her house—she chides me for being out alone—where she plays me videos of sacred mambos. I enjoy listening to her voice turn scratchy with excitement as she explains the patakís, and looking at her shiny skin. She takes me out for a sandwich and walks me back to the boarding house. 

Spirits surround me. I remember a question I always ask: is every work of Latino art a coffin or an altar? They used to carry Frida Kahlo's bed down the streets of Coyoacán, with her in it, alive, as if she were a wax figure in a parade of the saints. I keep turning back to Chuck Ramirez's photographs, disguised in Seven Days by the robes of mainstream Latino culture. In another few days, they crown me with my Oricha. I sit on a throne for a week like a living doll on a living altar.

Girar Means to Spin

The crickets

rise at dusk.

Mosquitos bow 

at the odor

of the sea

but cling to

the stench

of the river. 

Brown erupts 

on a rose petal

refusing to open.

Turn heart.

As sun grows

hot enough to

burn the skin

even sweat 

can scald you, 

as the moon 

reddens - look

down and see -

it's reflections

of blood 

on the water.

Turn heart.

Should I crawl

into the Nile

of an oyster,

ask the pearl

grow over me.

My heart's 

a fleck.

Don't let wind

mistake me

for smoke.

Iyawó (Kristin Naca) is the author of Bird Eating Bird, selected for the National Poetry Series MtvU Prize and published by Harper Perennial. Her work has appeared in Poetry MagazineIndiana Review, and Prairie Schooner. She teaches poetry and poetics at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. 


1. Ma Shanshan, "De la peinture à la poésie: étude comparée entre les deux Parnassiens-Théophile Gautier et Wen Yiduo," UFR des lettres, langues et sciences humaines (Angers: Université d'Angers, 2013), 8. 

2. Marjorie Munsterberg, Writing About Art (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009), 9. 

3. Gayatri Spivak, "Translator's Preface," in Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie(Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976), xxii. 

4. Rosario Hiriart, "Prólogo," in Lydia Cabrera, Koeko Iyawó: Aprende Novicia, Peque&ntilda;o Tratado de Regla Lucumi (Ultra Graphics Corporation: Miami, 1990), x. Cabrera, Koeko Iyawó, 5-6. 


Eating Lorca

Nouns you can smell.

Thanks to social networking, G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” has recently been given wide, if undeserved, circulation; anyone who consults the Poetry Foundation’s online poetry archive will find his claim not to be true. Hoping to disprove any larger point he may have been making, however, we asked several poets to mix memory and desire — for food — in the pieces that follow. Bon appetit!


My body prefers a diet of peasant food. That is, my blood rejects meat I can’t tie to a death. I get squeamish over dishes handled by too many hands. I scour the Twin Cities in search of competently rolled lumpia or Chinese dumpling. In Texas and Mexico, I shun lard—the fireworks of anonymous swine too complex on my tongue. My woe, I figured, would be lifelong before poet Luisa Igloria set me straight. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “you have a duende.” In Tagalog, duende means dark spirit or power. It’s also a forest creature, a flesh-hungry spirit ready to tear apart a child, limb from limb.

When Purisima, my mother, eats—duende. Now a lifetime away from the provinces of the Philippines, she still sucks on the damp knuckles of every thighbone, on every plate. I learned to slurp mantle from heads. Eat with my hands. My Puerto Rico-born father taught me to disinter fish eyes and gnaw them to pebbles. The best way to honor duende, I’ve found, is to get meat to the fire as fast as you can and eschew refrigeration. A kill with a purpose. Only hot blood satisfies the duende: pork flush with iron; phosphorous blooming from fish; plantains blackened and deflating in a box. Over weeks, bacteria break down the banana’s woody cells and excrete the sour waste you crave.

Duende was a tool missionaries used to cower disinterested Tagalogs. We ate up duende and look what happened. We transmitted it back across the ocean—centuries before it crossed Lorca’s lips—on the very same routes pigs zigzagged from Asia, on the Spanish galleon ships. Duende is a cannibalism and a mirror. Nouns you can smell. Watch a family slaughter a pig in Pampanga, and the precision with which they assemble a pit in the suburbs of Virginia. Not an earlobe is missed. Roasted lechon our idiom. Now, new breeds of swine return to the Islands, from America. Hogs are raised in the luxury of traditional backyard pens, behind every kind of house, in the archipelago. Returning to roots, duende laughs.

Duende appears in divots; there was symmetry. Dark sounds fill the rhyme and refrain. “Ay!” Lorca writes:

The shout leaves a cypress shadow

on the wind.

(Leave me in this field


What dark do we see in the dark? What shadow in “the lightless horizon/ …bitten by bonfires.” Every morning, in open-air markets, in the Philippines, women sit along benches, stuffing intestine with fresh red pulp. Peppers and pineapple season the innards they tie off into sausage. Meat so sweet it glows in your mouth. In coastal towns, fathers and sons line up with heaping, skull-sized nets. Crustaceans pile up on battered, green Styrofoam. The catch is whatever father and son can manage to fish, on a tipsy boat, in the dark. Neruda captures lives like these—and these poems have duende. If you’re lucky, your hotel has plumbing and a live-in cook. She’s done this work since she was six: clean, wash, and prepare seafood the boarders carry from the dock. Biting into shrimp this quick from the sea, you awaken the lives inside them: the fish the shellfish eat moments before they’re plucked from the depths. A voluble, planktonic must swarms from the flesh.

The explorer Magellan came to the Philippines and was eaten. I found Lorca’s poems and ate them all. The sounds of tongue-clacking, wooden spoons, and heels jangle in me. The poet Rigoberto González sat beside me at a bar in New York City, and he clanked from the sound of lots of yummy poets inside his belly. “Horn,” his poem about two bulls on a truck bed, is the cud of the gypsy digesting the lyric: “eye reflecting throbbing eye/There is no seeking pity,/no screwing the horn back on.” Mitsuye Yamada’s “Evacuation,” written during internment, resembles glass in the throat of a Romani singer:

As we boarded the bus


the Seattle Times

photographer said


So obediently I smiled

and the caption the next day 


Note smiling faces

a lesson to Tokyo.

How the repetition of a single word releases duende. The eye stares, helpless, at a wounded eye. A smile travels back and forth from hell.

Duende haunts centuries of Andean song and now returns to Andalusia, Cádiz. Gabriela Mistral—“como el cántaro del peruano,” like the Peruvian singer, “como la quena de mil años,” like the thousand-year-old reed flute—ground her corpse into corpus. “El poro al poro, el gajo al gajo,” mortar to mortar, pestle to pestle, “y ponme entre ellos a vivir,” and put me between them so I may live, “pasmada dentro de tu pasmo,” ravished inside of your shock.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2011